Jennifer Lawrence is putting down Katniss’s bow and arrow for another literary adaption. She will star as the malevolent Cathy Ames in a new adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Gary Ross, who first teamed up with Lawrence for The Hunger Games, will direct. Pair with: Our essay on vile women in fiction, which features the infamous Cathy.
In her essay In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, fellow staff writer Emily St. John Mandel writes about protagonists who behave badly, like the eponymous Marie in Marcy Dermansky’s frisky little novel, Bad Marie. It’s true, many readers want to actually like a book’s main character — they’d take them to lunch if they could — but true villains are a hoot, everyone knows that. Who doesn’t love to hate Dr. Claw and his menacing feline in Inspector Gadget?
The problem is, in a work of thoughtful fiction, most villains are given a modicum of humanity; it’s their hidden vulnerability, their tangled motivation, that makes a reader believe they are real people. Makes them less villainous, really. Dermansky’s Marie is “supremely conniving,” as Mandel puts it, but she isn’t a villain. She isn’t vile. It’s impossible to hate someone that shocking, that fun.
I’ve been thinking lately about the truly poisonous characters in fiction. The female ones, specifically. Because women are vilified every day for not doing or saying what they’re supposed to. Is it anti-feminist to write an evil woman? I hope not, because there are some truly fabulous cunts in fiction.
Here are just a few:
Edith Stoner in Stoner
John Williams’ quiet masterpiece about an unassuming English professor named William Stoner spans more than 45 years and depicts, with simplicity and compassion, the slow and important work of understanding the self — one’s passions and desires, one’s body, one’s flaws. A main source of conflict in the novel is Stoner’s wife, Edith. Like Stoner at the beginning of the novel, Edith doesn’t know who she is. At the start of their courtship, we learn:
Her needlepoint was delicate and useless, she painted misty landscapes of thin water-color washes, and she played the piano with a forceless but precise hand; yet she was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life, nor could it have ever occurred to her that she might become responsible for the well-being of another.
Unlike her husband, though, who discovers his love of literature and commits himself to the study of it, Edith never finds or seriously seeks out true fulfillment. Her unhappiness is a weapon she uses in their marriage, and the above passage only hints at her capacity for viciousness. She usurps his home office, she pits their daughter against him. Oh, how she terrorizes Stoner! I recently led a discussion about this novel and midway into it a woman raised her hand and said something like, “What the hell is up with Edith?” This was followed by a flurry of nods and invectives from the rest of the class. It takes everything in me to summon up sympathy for Edith — to even comprehend the depth of her meanness. Though her role in Stoner’s narrative is complex, I’m sure that if she starred in her own novel, it would be a tedious, vacuous, and miserable read. Boo! Hiss!
The Wife in “Do Not Disturb”
“I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer,” says the push-over husband in my favorite story by A.M. Homes, “but I don’t know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch.” Who would know what to do? In “Do Not Disturb” we witness a dysfunctional marriage turn even more toxic as the narrator’s wife, a surgeon who knows exactly how cancer can terrorize one’s body, undergoes a hysterectomy and chemo, all the while being nasty to her partner and saying things like, “I feel nothing. I am made of steel and wood.” The wife’s brief moments of vulnerability — for instance, when she farts and runs out of the room, embarrassed — redefine her vileness as nothing more than a defense mechanism in the face of a life-threatening disease. But when I reach out to sympathize with her, she bites my hand.
Cathy/Kate Ames in East of Eden
Some readers complain that Cathy — Cal and Aron’s mother in John Steinbeck’s classic novel — isn’t a believable or plausible character. That might be true, for her cruelty renders her inhuman. I’d diagnose her as a dangerous psychopath; she kills her parents in a house fire, shoots her husband, abandons her newborn children, and murders her brothel boss so that she may inherit the business — and does it all with a smirk. She feels no empathy, thinks only of herself. And, like some reality television villainess, she’s beautiful. Of course she is. Here is a description of her as a school girl:
Cathy grew more lovely all the time. The delicate blooming skin, the golden hair, the wide-set, modest, and yet promising eyes, the little mouth full of sweetness, caught attention and held it.
I love Cathy’s inner-monster almost as much as I love Steinbeck’s descriptions of her. With prose rhythm like that, I forgive this book for all of its flaws, for the way it demonizes a woman for using her sexuality to get what she wants.
Zenia in The Robber Bride
The three female protagonists of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride suffer at the hands of Zenia, the man-stealer (and man-eater), who isn’t so much a woman as non-gendered — she is without a verifiable past, she is almost mythic in her actions and in her ability to disappear and renew herself, and she does not suffer as the other women, or men, in the novel do. If she wants something (or someone), she uses her body to get it. But she uses something else, too, and that something remains a mystery to the characters. Zenia has large breasts but they aren’t real. She’s a home-wrecker and it’s fun to hate her.
I’d consider Margaret Atwood a feminist writer, meaning, I suppose, that her books pass the Bechdel test every time, and that she gives her characters, male or female, rich internal lives. Her novels are often about women and the issues that preoccupy them, from family to their bodies to friendships with other women. It’s funny, then, that when thinking of vile women in fiction, I thought not only of Zenia, but also of Serena Joy, the steely Commander’s wife in The Handmaid’s Tale, and of Cordelia, the manipulative Queen Bee from Cat’s Eye. With Zenia, though, her behavior seems motivated only by a need to lie, rather than by something more complex and sympathetic. I’d argue that the novel’s comic tone allows for Zenia’s larger-than-life, wonderfully vile presence in Atwood’s oeuvre. Atwood is a feminist writer because she writes flawed female characters who, like real people, judge one another. Evil is not gender-specific, though the way we vilify others often is.
There you have it, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Who are your favorite vile women in literature?
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
As we noted yesterday, Carolyn Kellogg has an interesting piece up at Papercuts about Bruce Springsteen and Walker Percy. Carolyn expresses some surprise at finding out that the Boss is an avid reader. To us die-hard fans, however, evidence of Bruce’s bookish leanings is legible as far back as the late ’70s. There’s the song title nicked from Flannery O’Connor (“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” from Tracks); the in-concert plug for Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life (on Live 1975-1985); the East of Eden-ish “Highway Patrolman” (from Nebraska); and the long quotation from The Grapes of Wrath in the title track of The Ghost of Tom Joad.For those interested in what else Bruce has been reading, a big photo spread of Springsteen’s “writing room” in the current issue of Rolling Stone offers a tantalizing glimpse (Ed. – The photo they’ve posted is much smaller than the one in the magazine, frustrating attempts at further investigation online). I found myself distracted from the accompanying article, perusing the bookshelves instead, as I tend to do involuntarily when I’m invited into the house of an acquaintance for the first time. In addition to the prerequisites of any writing room – Roget’s Thesaurus; The Holy Bible; Bob Dylan’s Lyrics – the Springsteen shelves boast an eclectic mix of literary fiction and books on history and music. Here’s what I could glean from the spines.Black Tickets, by Jayne Anne PhillipsWhite Noise, by Don DeLilloAmerican Pastoral, by Philip RothThe Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell Cold New World , by William FinneganCountry: The Music and the MusiciansAmerican Moderns, by Christine StansellReal Boys, by William PollackAt the Center of the Storm, by George TenetWhen We Were Good, by Robert S. CantwellJohn Wayne’s America, by Garry WillsThe Elegant Universe, by Brian GreeneThe Search for God at Harvard, by Ari L. GoldmanFeel Like Going Home, by Peter GuralnickDark Witness, by Ralph WileyGo Cat Go, by Craig MorrisonNew Americans, by Al SantoliOrlando, by Virginia WoolfCurrently, Bruce appears to be reading Fallen Founder, a biography of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg. And he is evidently something of a fan-boy himself; prominently displayed on his coffee table is a book called Greetings from E Street.
Sometimes I find that I need to slow things down. After reading four or five books a month, it becomes necessary to pick one book and settle down – to nestle in and enjoy every painstakingly created word. This month, I finally did it.I found great pleasure in discovering John Steinbeck five years after going to college. I read Of Mice and Men while in high school, and breezed through The Pearl in college, but never gave him a second thought until reading East of Eden last year.I was hooked.Instead of doing the compulsive book-reader thing and devouring every Steinbeck book at once, I’ve decided to stretch them out. Steinbeck’s not writing any more books, and I’d hate to not have one to look forward to, even if it’s a shorter novella or play.With that in mind, I felt it was time to dive into his Pulitzer Prize winning novel – The Grapes of Wrath – and experience the horrible, yet satisfyingly moralistic life of the Joad family.Think about it: what happens when you lose everything? When your livelihood dries up and your home is taken away. When you’re forced onto the road after selling nearly everything. What happens when you drive off in search of a better place and it proves not to be the Babylon you’d dreamed of but a living hell?To most of us, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl eras are historic concepts, no longer conceivable in today’s world, destined to live in the past and remembered only by those who lived through it. However, nearly 70 years after it was published, The Grapes of Wrath continues to outline the life and death struggle to survive without food, money, or prospect.The Joads are a typical Dust Bowl group: a farm family whose land dried up, cashed out, and was taken away. They’re forced to begin a journey to California, admittedly with the greatest of intents. Jobs are rumored to be plentiful, and even the eldest members are excited to bask in endless fields of grapes and peaches. With very little money and an unreliable truck, the family heads west on Route 66 in search of their new life.What they find is anything but plentiful. An entire population of displaced farm families – “Okies,” as they were slanderously called – had arrived in California to find very few jobs. Because of this, wages were lowered; child labor encouraged, and even those who had constant work were hard pressed to keep their families fed. Children starved, men and women collapsed, exhausted, and what little belongings that still existed were moved weekly, sometimes daily.Steinbeck constructs an unassuming, yet vicious landscape throughout the book. The imagery is stark. Hope is fleeting as the Joad family slowly makes its way down Route 66. They felt the cold calculation of the banks that took away their home. Then they experienced the restless journey towards something they couldn’t quite grasp. Eventually, they discovered that they could be powerful – if they organized, they could beat this rap. If a man’s children are crying for food, starving and dying, you’d be surprised the amount of fight it can bring up.The Grapes of Wrath isn’t a dusty, boring tome. It’s not a chore. It’s amazingly gripping and startlingly vivid. At times it’s hopeful. Other times, terrifyingly melancholy. If you see a little of yourself in the Joad family, you’re liable to understand their plight, to feel their pain – to quietly champion their cause until, by the end, you’re fighting for a rally and hoping things turn out.Steinbeck champions the “down on his luck” traveler better than anyone. He brings the fight not just to the family, but to everyone around them. Brief chapter-long interludes paint a frame around the Joad family’s odyssey, bringing perspective to their suffering. Steinbeck argues that bad luck shouldn’t cause an entire region to end up poor, homeless, and without prospect. And it shouldn’t cause hardship for the small farmers that have to try to survive in a world of declining costs and dwindling returns.There are stark parallels between the westward migration of Midwesterners during the Depression and a more recent disaster – Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Look at what happened last summer – at the destruction that Mother Nature brought down upon the people of New Orleans – and consider what happened to residents who were too poor to pick themselves back up. Think about the people who were forced to move on from their homes in order to fight for the same job as their displaced neighbors.Ultimately, we can all learn a lot from Steinbeck’s prose. In The Grapes of Wrath, we learn not to take anything for granted. We learn that beauty can be found in the simple – in a loaf of bread, or in a porcelain bathtub.Most of all, we learn that many times it’s the people with nothing that are willing to give the most. We learn that everyone is a member of the same human race – that everyone has a hand in everyone else’s life – and that if you can’t help a fellow destitute, then what good are you to yourself?Frankly, that’s a lesson we all could learn a thing or two about.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, August
For me, one of the great feats is to find a book that is so good you can’t put it down. I mean literally – a book that engulfs every spare moment you’ve got, forcing everything else that isn’t necessary to the side. A book that, after reading just the first few chapters, you know is going to be one of the best you’ve ever read.A book this good doesn’t come around very often. To Kill a Mockingbird. East of Eden… Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Okay. I swear I’ll stop talking about Jonathan Safran Foer. I have to. I’ve read everything he’s written. And I’m glad I saved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the end. So you’ll have to forgive me this month – I guarantee I’ll stop from now on.My first encounter with a Foer was actually with his brother, Franklin, in How Soccer Explains the World. I ran across Jonathan Foer later on, thanks to the Penguin Pockets 70th anniversary set, and then finally read Everything is Illuminated last month. The Penguin Pockets book – The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning, was a Vilhauer Book of the Month. Everything is Illuminated would have made it last month, except I chose Other Electricities instead.The reason I chose Other Electricities is because I didn’t want to “over-Foer” my welcome. This month I can’t say the same.Our narrator is nine-year-old Oskar Schell. And his grandmother. And his grandfather. In true Foer style, there are three separate voices embarking on three separate missions – Oskar is looking for a lock. The lock needs to match the key he found on top of his father’s dresser. Oh, and just to add a little timeliness, his father died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Meanwhile, his estranged grandmother and grandfather are writing letters that will never be read.First of all, EL&IC is not a novel about September 11th, 2001. It is, however, a book that feeds off of the misery and fears of that day. Because really, everything that happens has a shadow of the 11th looming above it, a constant reminder of the fact that someone so kind, so unassuming – in this case, Oskar’s father – has died. You can see it in everyone he meets – the sorrow and the sudden protective nature in their actions. No one wants to talk about it, yet here, in the middle of New York City, you’ve got a boy that’s trying to solve a riddle that is nearly directly tied to that fateful day.You can’t expect a young boy to understand fully what happened on September 11th, and Oskar is a great example. He’s a genius, a boy that considers himself a Francophile and gets his news from international news sites. He’s wise beyond his young age, but he’s still a scared boy. He’s picked on at school, and he at times takes on the role of “pretentious little twit,” the smartest guy in the room – a kid that knows too much and isn’t afraid to say it.It’s Foer’s ability to twist relationships – the stranded relationship of Oskar’s grandparents, the strained relationship between Oskar and his mother, the lost relationship of Oskar and his father, the one man that he truly respected and looked up to – that makes the book work. The themes are dreadful, if you think about them too long, but you’re not doing yourself any justice by ignoring them and moving along. All three narratives chronicle disappointment. Sadness. The threat of never being able to say goodbye.But most of all, you find the dead hope of an unanswered question, the “what ifs” that torture each character as they try to go on with their lives. Oskar tries so desperately to be strong in the face of every unanswered question, but he keeps remembering back to that day, to the things he missed and the things he didn’t. What if his father would have lived? To Oskar’s grandmother, it’s a “what if” about her husband, a man who has been gone for years. To Oskar’s grandfather, it’s a series of questions from the 40s that have never been touched.September 11th. The bomb at Hiroshima. The napalm storm of Dresden.A lack of communication. The lost years of childhood. The connections between father and son.How can you spell out the feelings invoked in EL&IC? Because that’s exactly what this book does. It invokes feelings. It brings all of your emotions to your throat. It’s that powerful.What if a book was so intense, so full of questions, so full of the exhilaration that comes from discovering a character’s secret that you couldn’t put it down, and when you finished, all you could do is close the book, stare at the ceiling and think?What if?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.
[Max: This is the introduction to a new monthly feature written by Corey Vilhauer who blogs at Black Marks on Wood Pulp]For the most part, I’m a young reader.I’m not well versed with years of thoughtful reading. I’m only 27, and in that time I’ve only read so many books in between finishing school, staring a career, and watching too much television.Now I’m struggling to catch up. Luckily for you, I’m broadcasting this struggle to the masses.Each month on my blog I recap everything I’ve read – a “What I’ve Been Reading” column. There’s a lot to be said about the paths a mind takes when selecting a new book, and part of what I do is try to make those connections. Why would I bother reading a George Orwell essay right after finishing Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island? It could be that I was obsessed at the time with English culture and wanted to continue riding the wave. Or it could be that Bryson mentioned a certain Orwell passage while recounting his three month jaunt around England.Or, it could be as simple as “I bought it and wanted to start it immediately.”Well, I can’t bring all of that to The Millions. What I can bring, however, is my favorite book of the month. Call it the Vilhauer Book of the Month club. Some months it’s going to be a classic, like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Others are going to be more obscure – think Jonathan Safran Foer’s The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning (a 70th anniversary Pocket Penguin released only in the U.K. and Canada).Regardless, I’ll bring it to you. You’ll get the background as to why I’m reading it. You’ll get the story itself. You’ll get why I like it. You’ll get what it led me to read next.All in all, you’ll get every stinking second I’ve spent on the book – from selection to completion – and you’ll have no one to thank but Max for allowing me to spout off on this site. Thank him later, if you wish.Corey Vilhauer
Best Novel: The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen – Hugo Whittier is a 40-year-old misanthrope living in self-imposed exile at Waverly, his ancestral home on the Hudson River. Hugo is rapidly smoking himself to death, but doing it with real style. When his estranged brother separates from his wife and moves in, he drags Hugo kicking and screaming back into the company of other human beings. Will he ruin Hugo’s plan to smoke himself out of existence? This book is full of dark humor and wry observations on the loneliness, isolation, and mortality. Also, Hugo is a mean cook and gives one heck of a recipe for Holiday Sauce. I stumbled upon this book through a magazine article about Ms. Christensen, and I’m very happy I did.Runners Up (Fiction): East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (If I’m truly honest with myself, this was probably number one, but Edan already picked it, so that would be no fun. Plus, it’s not like Steinbeck needs more heat.)The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret AtwoodThe History of Love by Nicole KraussI Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek (So sentimental, but so, so good. The best story collection I read this year.)Best Non-Fiction: The Power Broker by Robert Caro – Next year will mark the first time in 3 years that I will have a non-Caro title as best non-fiction of the year. Unless, of course, he cranks out that fourth Lyndon Johnson book in record time. The Power Broker is impressive in its scale, its depth, and its incredible sense of drama. It’s Caro’s second best book (behind The Means of Ascent, Vol 2 of the Lyndon Johnson years), and worth every freakin hour it takes to read it. (As a bonus, if you don’t like reading it, you can use it to tone your biceps and triceps…).Runners Up (Non-fiction):A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha PowerGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Edan and I once ran a book club together. Once a month we would guide our herd of readers through our most recent selection. Not all of them would read the book, but we didn’t mind. Our only rule was “no saddies allowed.”East of Eden (or, as I like to call it, East of Edan) by John Steinbeck – Finally, finally, I read this wonderful book and I’m so thankful. Steinbeck’s sprawling novel is an intergenerational story about one family, with occasional asides about Steinbeck-the-narrator’s family. There’s much here about the nature of destiny, what is and isn’t inherited, and the problem of monsters. The story births other smaller, connected stories, and the shifting point of view is downright brave. It’s the kind of novel which gives permission for new, better novels to be written.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This British novel is narrated by an older, embittered high school teacher named Barbara Covett, who’s writing a tell-all about her coworker Sheba, who has had an affair with her high school student. Barbara is a terrific narrator: she’s got an unflinching gaze and she’s damn funny. This book is both smart and character-driven, as well as being a quick, entertaining read.Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore – Okay. So I’m not going to hide it: I love Lorrie Moore; she’s one of my favorite living short story writers. This svelte novel moves back and forth between the narrator’s ailing marriage (and their trip to Paris), and an intense friendship the narrator had as a teenaged girl. The present story is characteristic Moore: comic, wry, with metaphors that will make you squeal with delight. The retrospective story is more lyrical and personal–a wonderful depiction of youth and all its confusion and devotion. This is a flawed book, but a beautiful one.
I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The “a ha!” moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can’t help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, “Wow, that was worth it.”
Joan writes in with this question:I loved the regular Oprah Book Club and her Classics selections have made wonderful new or re-reading. The last Oprah Classic I know of is Anna Karenina, last summer. Can you tell me if there have been more recent Oprah Classics? Thanks so much.Much as I am tempted, I’ll spare my readership another discussion on the pros and cons of Oprah’s Book Club. (The short answer is that I think it’s good. You can read why here.) Oprah relaunched her famed book club in the summer of 2003 with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and since then has recommended six books to her viewers. Oprah selected Alan Paton’s somewhat forgotten novel about South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country in September 2003. She opened 2004 by recommending Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude followed by The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers in April 2004. In June of 2004 Oprah recommended Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I remember being struck by Oprah’s bookselling power when I saw dozens of copies of Anna Karenina for sale at New Jersey Turnpike rest stops that summer next to John Grisham and Sue Grafton novels. Oprah has made only one pick since then: Pearl S. Buck’s epic about China, The Good Earth. She hasn’t made a selection in a while so you may want to look out for a new Oprah pick soon. You can bookmark this page to keep track of all her selections. Thanks for the question!